What does it take to build a great team culture?

Photo by Tim Marshall

I worked with many great teams throughout my career. Rather regional ones, national ones, European teams, Asian teams, global teams. I participated in team building events, went to town halls and on weekend trips with the whole company. I listened to CEOs sharing their vision and the company’s corporate values. I took leadership skills trainings and followed leadership programmes. I witnessed and was part of many attempts to build a great team, but I always felt that something was missing. So what does it take to build a great team culture?

Letting yourself fall backwards into the open arms of your team members can surely create the feeling for trust – especially in that moment. But what else does it tell me about them? Team building activities are fun and build trust. They help people to get to know each other in a different way. How much of this trust gets back into the workplace? How much does it help me to know that my colleague is good in reading maps and in managing to get us all home safely if she is easily offended by small things at the office? I trust her greatly and know she is a good sports, but how do I address her sensitivity? How different could it be if we had worked on our values and our self-awareness instead? Then talking about interpersonal differences could take place on a different level and turn into a discussion about values, expectations and attitudes. We could talk about why we do see the world from a different perspective.

The awareness about the significance of cultural differences may be widespread, the ways of constructively dealing with those differences seem to be rather limited. Building a great team culture is only possible if you account for cultural differences and if you give the team the chance to create their own culture.

What does it take to build a great team culture?
  1. You look for the desired qualities in people, 
  2. You get the basics right and 
  3. You provide the infrastructure to honour and promote the team culture.
1. What are the desired qualities in people?

In my opinion those are curiosity and self-awareness. Curiosity and self-awareness are key features of great team builders and members. Curiosity is oriented towards the outside world, self-awareness rather towards the inside.

Curiosity is such a strong quality in individuals and teams as it helps us to approach issues in a non-judgemental way, to think more deeply and rationally about decisions and to build trusting and collaborative relationships with our colleagues. Curiosity leads us to generate alternatives, makes us less biased when looking for information and less falling into stereotyping people by making broad judgements.

Our level of self-awareness describes how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations fit with our environment, reactions and impact on others. But self-awareness also describes our understanding of how other people view us in terms of the before mentioned. The more you know how others see you, the more skilled you are in showing empathy and taking others’ perspective.

Curiosity and self-awareness are strong qualities in people to build a great team culture.

2. Get the basics right

With “getting the basics right” I would like to draw your attention to values and cultural dimensions. The knowledge and understanding of the team members’ key values and their personal cultural dimensions are two key ingredients to get the process of developing a team culture started.

You can only create a team culture on values shared by everyone. The more self-awareness each member has and the more curiosity they show for the others, the easier it will be to bring those values to the surface. Ask each one what is important to them. And then start the digging. Go deeper to explore what your team members mean when they say “trust” or “fairness” or “integrity”. Then ask the others what they understand when they hear those same words. One of the most common mistakes is the assumption that we have a shared and clear understanding of the terms we use. A discussion about our different perspectives can be the start of an ongoing exchange to constantly review how aligned we are as a team.

While most people find it quite easy to identify their core values and discuss their significance for their professional life, many more are not aware of cultural dimensions and how much those define our value settings. Geert Hofsteede researched the dimensions of national cultures and how they define the way we work, communicate and honour values. These dimensions describe for example how we deal with hierarchy or how we acknowledge individual achievements. How we are motivated, or how we embrace or avoid risks. These dimensions describe if we are rather long-term or short-term oriented or if we seek gratification or are rather self-controlled. All of what I just mentioned has an effect on how we work together and on how we see the world.

If people get the chance to position themselves physically on a scale or a grid of those dimensions, differences become obvious and tangible. The objective of the exercise is that the team defines the values they want to honour and promote and how they plan to promote them. In this discussion you can already lay the ground works for the third part of the process: providing the infrastructure.

3. Providing the infrastructure to honour and promote the team culture

Even if this part sounds the easiest, it often is the hardest. Why is that? Because we are lazy. Once we defined the great team culture we wanted to build, we are so proud of our achievement. We clap each others’ shoulders and think about how lucky we are to be working in such a great team. Building a great team culture is a continuous effort. We have to provide the space and the time to work on it. It does not suffice to call a meeting every other month to check in with everyone.

Discussing our differences should become a normal part of our conversation. When reviewing a project we discuss what went well and what we could have done better. Why don’t we include what we learned by shifting our perspective or by being more (or less) risk embracing? Why don’t mention that our different approach to power distance made it sometimes difficult to openly discuss issues within the team?

Or take the end of a meeting when we ask if there are any more questions or concerns. It could also be a time to ask the team to reflect on the communication during the meeting. Was it very direct or rather indirect? What did people notice or like about the way they communicate as a team?

Whatever you plan to do, the most important is to bring the discussion about team culture to a meta-level. Do it regularly and get people into the habit of talking about it. This way, when difficulties arise and tensions start building, people are better prepared to tackle such situations without getting emotional or personal. A great team culture provides a safe space for everyone to speak up and to explore what unites us. A great team culture fosters curiosity. It allows us to take interest in each other’s ideas rather than focusing only on our own perspective.